Tanzania: Mt. Kilimanjaro

I always knew we would climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.  We’ve said it a million times.  But when we actually signed up three days prior to the start, shit got real.  We used the same company that brought us up from Johannesburg to simplify our lives (although they were a little pricier and proved to have some serious deficiencies apart from the mountain crew).  We jumped off the truck in Arusha and took a two hour shuttle to Moshi, the town at the base of Kilimanjaro.  Our coordinator, Sampson, met us for our pre-climb briefing–the reason he knows so much is that it is in his blood.  His grandfather led the first European to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the 1890’s.  We opted for the 7 day Machame route rather than the 6 day due to Joshua’s fear of altitude sickness…to give him an extra day to acclimatize and me an extra day to hate camping.  Sampson lectured us for an hour on what to pack, how to eat, when to sleep.  We knew Machame was going to be difficult (a whiskey route, not Coca-cola), and  I finally started taking it serious.

The morning of our climb, we were collected by our team, a term not used lightly.  We expected a guide, a cook and maybe a porter or two.  We anticipated having to carry our own bags so we packed light.  What we were greeted with was completely different: 1 head guide–Antonis (who actually led Jimmy Carter and a throng of secret service officers on a climb in the 1980’s), 1 assistant guide–William, 1 cook—Edward, 1 waiter—Emanuel, 3 porters—Freddie, Dono and Raqueezi.  They picked us up in a van that we had to start by popping the clutch and we put-putted to the park entrance.  After two hours of waiting for the proper permits (still not sure if we ever got those), our team was packed and ready for action.  To pass the time, Joshua and I checked out the other climbers.  Several were outfitted in brand new gear, at least one had the specific Machame Route backpack.  Too many were wearing hiking shoes that they had never hiked in.  One was wearing all spandex.  How could we compete?

Neither of us brought shorts that short or boots that tall…dang.

Some were older than our parents and some were the size of both of our parents combined.  If 30% don’t make it to the top, we felt we were at a statistical advantage even if we were wearing the same clothes we’d been traveling in since the beginning of the trip (except for my universal party dress that I left at the hotel).

We took advantage of being poor travelers and drank the extra water people left behind as they filled their fancy camel packs.  How did we get to this point in our travels?  “You can never be too hydrated,” Sampson told us.

The hike began on a groomed trail that was mostly uphill through the rain forest.  William told us to expect 5-6 hours of walking to our first camp.  I felt like we were never going to make it with how many times Antonis had to tell us, “pole, pole” (slow down in Swahili…now I can use it on Joshua ALL THE TIME).  It seemed as though we spent more time resting than actually walking…but at least we got to take in the indigenous flowers and birds (gotta love the birds).  As we made our way up, we watched porters overtake tourists while carrying 20-30kg packs on their backs, bags on their heads and buckets tied around their waists.

There is supposed to be a 20kg limit, but somehow all the porters have found a way around it and end up carrying tents, tables, chairs, baskets of food and OUR bags up the mountain.  Not to mention they somehow found time to party along the way with radios, plastic bags of cognac, and the occasional joint or two.  Distractions aside, all we had to do was follow the 5 simple rules of success per Samson to summit Kili: walk slow, eat food, drink plenty, rest a lot and acclimatize.  We decided to listen.  With how much an attempt costs, we didn’t want to risk failing.

We made it to the Machame camp in 4:20; I bet we could have made it in two hours on our own.  Just as we arrived, the porters had finished putting up our new home and dining tent.  We were served popcorn, biscuits and afternoon tea (what?!) and then encouraged to nap before dinner.

It seemed unfair that our life was so easy when we saw the rest of our team running around collecting water, setting up tents and cooking dinner…and doing it all with HUGE smiles on their faces.

Our three-course dinner was better than ANY meal we had eaten in Africa: cucumber soup, fish & chips and vegetable curry.  We couldn’t come close to finishing it, but we tried.  We were following directions, remember.

Our second day started with Emanuel waking us up, “Joshie, Joshie, time for tea!”  I don’t even like tea, but with the amount served, there could be a chance for my conversion.  We stuffed ourselves with hot porridge, bread & spreads and papaya and then realized we had a second course of eggs and sausage on the way.  Seriously, they are going to have to roll me up this mountain.

At 8am we departed for Shira Point, our camp for the second day.

We climbed 850m vertically in just 4 hours.  Along the way, we realized that neither of our guides spoke very good English and our porters even less.  Joshua tried to ask a few questions and make a few jokes, all of which went unanswered or were misunderstood.  He got a stern talking to about only asking questions of the head guide because the porters “only know 2+2=4 and little else” which gave us a peak at the ugly side of mountain hierarchy.

Our arrival at camp was timed perfectly with the start of the rain.  We combated the weather by taking a nap, enjoying tea, taking another nap, eating lunch, taking a third nap and then a short walk to Shira Caves at 3900m for acclimatization.

By the time we made it back to camp, dinner was prepared.  Sometimes, it seemed like our life of delicious meals served by a waiter and porters who made sure every need was met, was almost TOO luxurious…and then we saw the toilets.

We woke on the third morning to a frost covered camp and our first sample of the sunrises to come.

We pounded our three-course breakfast and started out to Lava Tower at 4550m before descending down to camp at Barranco at 3900m.

As we climbed, the environment changed from tundra plants to volcanic rocks.

We did fine with the altitude, even though it was Joshua’s biggest fear going into our Kili climb due to his reaction in Bolivia.  We walked slowly, took lots of breaks and still managed to be the first people to camp.  Our confidence grew after we heard from another climber that three of the 4 in their group had already succumbed to altitude sickness with pale faces, loss of appetite and nausea.  We had trouble understanding why so many people are reluctant to take the anti-altitude sickness medicine (Diamox).  Many of our fellow climbers brought it with them, but wanted to wait to see if they “needed it.”  No thanks, give me the drugs.

Our team was already there with our tent ready and popcorn popping.  All we had to think about was our nap–do we zip the sleeping bags together, how much should I inflate my pillow, which side do I want?  Joshua could get used to this life…he’s always fed and incredibly well rested.  It was almost difficult to sleep through the night after our 4 hour nap in the day…but of course, we tried and succeeded.

Our fourth day started early.

We had plans to walk to Karanga and on to base camp at Barafu if we were feeling good (even though that put us a day ahead of our itinerary).  We spent three hours alone in the clouds scaling the Baranco Wall before having a hot lunch at Karanga.  I honestly do not understand how the porters can run up and down these walls with no hands and 20kg on their heads in shoes three sizes too big, but they make it look easy.

Our guides pushed us to keep going to base camp, another two hours, which was good and bad.  We were ahead of the pack, so we had the trail mostly to ourselves except for a few speedy porters.  But, we also caught the tail end of climbers coming down from their summit attempts…some looked so disoriented they had 4 porters guiding them one step at a time.  It was a definite and much needed wake-up call.

Our job for the day was to rest before an early dinner (notice a pattern?).  We had a summit briefing during our evening tea.  Our guides told us the plan and then bombarded us with questions.  Did we have this?  Did we have that?  How many pants were we planning on wearing?  It was nerve-wracking…in addition to the sad fact that a woman passed away on the mountain due to a pulmonary issue related to the altitude the same day.  The guides’ experience won out, so we borrowed a pair of leggings and gloves each, bringing our total attire for the summit to: Laura 4 pants, Joshua 6 pants, Laura/Joshua 9 tops, 2 beanies, 2 gloves, 2 socks.  We were prepared for a hail storm, followed by a monsoon, followed by an avalanche, followed by a week of starvation.  I felt like a fat burglar.

We napped after dinner, our outfits readied and our bags packed.

It wasn’t easy to sleep at 6pm when we knew our wake up call was coming at 11:15pm.  Emanuel showed up on the dot with two ginger teas and ginger biscuits for breakfast which was thoughtful considering the altitude often makes people puke and ginger is known to combat the feeling.  Exactly at midnight we set off in all our clothes with our two guides in the full moonlight up the switchback trail…pole pole.

We passed a few groups, but for the most part stuck to our own super slow pace and miraculously at 4:45am we made it to Stella Point at 5,739m (18,828ft).  It was completely dark, so we could only see a few other hikers huddled at a resting point.  We joined them to eat the snacks sent by our stomach engineer, Edward.

After a few minutes, we set off again for Uhuru Point, the “roof of Africa.”  Antonis prepared us for an hour walk, but just 30 minutes later we were the first people to summit for the day.  Actually, I was the first to summit and I never beat Joshua at ANYTHING.  We took a moment to celebrate our accomplishment and enjoy the view without any other visitors.

(With time for only one picture before the crowd came, of course we chose the guy with one leg shorter than the other to snap it).

I had borrowed a phone from our cook the night before, wrapped it in a beanie and was able to shoot a text to my little brother for his birthday from the highest point in Africa 5,895m (19,340 feet).  When I put my glove back on the frozen claw of a hand that remained, we started back down to Stella.  The sun was just breaking the horizon as we walked back across the crater.  Joshua forgot any troubles he had and was literally bouncing from one side of the mountain to the other shooting photos.  We hadn’t seen him with this much energy since Day 1.

I almost felt guilty with how good we felt as we saw people struggling to put one foot in front of the other.  Some people skip Uhuru altogether, but after seeing the view, I wouldn’t.

On the way back to Stella, I noticed far more about the terrain than when I had my head was down in determination on the way up.  Arrow Glacier looked like it was floating on the side of the mountain and Mt. Mawenzi really is a castle on a cloud.

We took our final Kilimanjaro picture at Stella Point now that we had more light—we spent a total of 1.5 hours on top (not recommended).

The descent came fast and furious…we basically skied down the loose gravel stopping only to regain our footing or prevent ourselves from slamming into a large hidden boulder.  I started to pay for my layers; both Joshua and I were sweating through all nine of our shirts.  In just 1.5 hours we made it back down to our camp, greeted by our team singing in Swahili.  I didn’t cry on the top of the mountain, but the sweet gesture moved me.  They took such pride in our success.  We got hugs and high-fives from everyone.

After brunch, we packed up our things.  I was convinced we could make it all the way back down.  Just the thought of a shower and a real bed were reward enough…I have a tendency to get “back to the barn”syndrome when I know I’m headed home (we only had 6 hours left).  But, we had paid for a 7 day trek;  at the rate we were going our guides would have gotten us up and down the mountain in five.  Even though I would have given anything to have a proper toilet and be able to scrape the dirt from under my nails, I accepted the fact that my knees were screaming at me to stop and gave in to the suggestion.  Our guides recommended a three hour walk to Mweka camp followed by an afternoon of relaxing.  I only agreed because the food was so good and being waited on never gets old!

In the end, we had summited Mt. Kilimanjaro.  It honestly felt (and still feels) surreal.  I’ve now tested my limits (this is one of them) and this adventure is safely on the done list…where it will stay, but the memory of a life above the clouds is truly awesome.

Even though I would have fought through the pain to return a day earlier, the night of rest made our final day a breeze.  It was almost over before it started.  In two short hours, we were at the Mweka gate having said goodbye to the mountain for good.

By 10am we were back at our B&B.  I took a bath to loosen some of the dirt–the water turned dark brown and it took a second shower and a pumice stone to really FEEL clean.  We celebrated with a burger, a coke and a bottle of champagne…a well deserved treat for a feat that will remain “once in a lifetime” (despite anything Joshua says).

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